Television personality and author
B orn Sandra Lee Waldroop, July 3, 1966, in SantaMonica, CA; daughter of Wayne and Vicky Wal- droop; married Bruce Karatz (a real estate developer and corporate executive), 2001 (divorced, 2006). Education: Attended the University of Wisconsin, mid1980s, and the Cordon Bleu Institute, Ottawa, Canada, c. 1998.
W orked as a waitress and for an import-expertcompany in California, late 1980s; founded Kurtain Kraft, a homewares line, c. 1992; created line of homewares sold at Target and Wal-Mart; first cookbook, Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Cooking, published by Miramax Books, 2002; television show Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee debuted on the Food Network, October, 2003.
T elevision personality Sandra Lee is the host ofthe popular Semi-Homemade Cooking series on the Food Network, a spinoff of her bestselling Semi-Homemade cookbooks. Lee provides recipes that use store-bought packaged foods artfully doctored up with fresh ingredients, and her ingenuous quick-fix creations have given her cult-hero status among busy families. A lithe, blond Californian, she has sometimes been called “the next Martha Stewart,” but Lee avoids such comparisons, instead describing herself as “the new-generation homemaker,” she told Parade writer Iris Krasnow. “I’m the one who can show you how to get it all done, have a satisfying career and a satisfying home life and not feel overly stressed. I want women to be able to accomplish anything.”
Lee was born in the mid1960s, and grew up in Sumner, Washington, near Tacoma. She was the first of five children born to a mother barely out of her teens, who then left Lee and her second daughter with her mother-in-law in Santa Monica, California. This happened when Lee was still a toddler, and she grew up thinking that her grandmother, Lorraine Waldroop, was her mother. From her she learned some valuable skills that would provide the building blocks for her career. “My grandmother was perfect,” Lee recalled in the interview with Krasnow in Parade. “I think of her decorating our birthday cakes. She built us a sandbox in her yard. We didn’t have shovels, so she gave us serving spoons to use in the sand.”
Lee’s mother returned with a new husband around the time that Lee was about to begin first grade, and the family lived in Marina del Rey, a nearby Southern California community, for a time. Then her stepfather took a job in Washington State, and the family moved north. Her mother had three more children by then, but was often ill with migraine headaches; as the oldest child in the family, Lee became responsible for many of the household chores. Her mother, whom she refers to in her 2007 memoir as Vicky, “spent her days lying on the couch, taking pills and screaming at us,” Lee wrote in for a book excerpt published by Family Circle. “When the welfare check arrived, I’d bike to the bank to deposit it. Then I paid our bills to ensure our gas and electricity weren’t shut off.” When Lee entered her teens, tensions between Vicky and her reached a crisis point, and she went to live with her biological father in Wisconsin.
After graduating from high school, Lee enrolled at the University of Wisconsin’s LaCrosse campus with the goal of becoming a physical therapist, but found she was much more interested in the business courses she took. Working two jobs, she eventually dropped out of college and moved to Los Angeles, where her aunt and uncle lived; the couple had once tried to adopt Lee and her sister Cindy when Vicky abandoned them at Lorraine’s, and she had remained close to them over the years. She found a job with an import-export company and began attending home-goods trade shows and county fairs as part of her work. Her living quarters were a single room in a house in the beachfront community of Malibu, and to decorate it she made some window treatments without a sewing machine by using wire coat hangers, which she bent into forms and then wrapped with swaths of fabric. When her aunt and uncle visited, they were so impressed with the result that her uncle suggested she talk to a welder friend of his, who might be able to replicate the wire forms.
The welder made the forms, and Lee took three weeks off from her jobs to sell her wares at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. She won the blue ribbon in home decorations at the fair, and launched her Kurtain Kraft business with proceeds from her sales. With her sister Kimmy she traveled to other California county fairs in a van—for which she had traded her prized sports car—and gave demonstrations on how to use her Kurtain Kraft forms. The line sold so well on the fair circuit that Lee earned enough to make her own infomercial, and then launched her home-products line on the QVC home-shopping channel.
Lee’s wares—which grew to include wall-stencil kits and garden pots already filled with seeds and fertilizer—expanded to mass retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, and she decided to branch out into cooking in the late 1990s. She enrolled at one of the famed Cordon Bleu cooking schools—in her case the Ottawa, Canada, outpost of the French culinary academy—but was dismayed by the complicated recipes. “They had us making bouillabaisse for three weeks,” she explained to Mary Boone, a writer for the Tacoma News Tribune, “with the idea that we’d freeze it and have a year’s worth of this wonderful homemade stew, and I started thinking that’s good and fine, but what if you don’t have three weeks to make soup? What if you have a job and kids and a husband and house?”
Lee began working on a cookbook that used convenience foods to create dishes that appeared to have been made from scratch. She called it the 70/30 strategy, laying out her philosophy to Colorado Springs Gazette writer Teresa J. Farney: “You purchase 70 percent of ready-made products, add 30 percent of your own ingenuity, personality and inspiration, and then take 100 percent of the credit!” Also known as convenience cuisine or speed-scratch cooking, this genre of cookbooks had been launched in early 1999 with Anne Bryn’s immensely successful Cake Mix Doctor, which provided dessert recipes that relied on store-bought cake mixes.
By this point Lee had become the spokesperson for a home builder, KB Home, and then began dating its chief executive officer, Bruce Karatz. “Most women dream about a husband. “I never wanted to be married,” she told Margot Dougherty in a Los Angeles Magazine interview, recalling that in previous relationships, “I kept thinking, ‘Oh no, you are cramping my business!’” She and Karatz were wed in 2001 in a lavish wedding, but the always-frugal Lee spent her funds wisely. “I bought my own wedding dress off the rack for $800,” she told Kimberly Cutter in W. “My husband was so appalled.”
Through Karatz, Lee met art dealer Barbara Guggenheim, and showed her the first draft of her cookbook. Guggenheim was married to entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, who notified magazine editor Tina Brown about Lee’s potential as the next Martha Stewart. At the time, Brown was editor of Talk magazine, which was part of the Miramax Studios empire founded by Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Brown arranged a meeting with Harvey Weinstein, who signed Lee immediately to a multimedia contract.
Lee’s first book was Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Cooking, and was published in the fall of 2002. It became a New York Times bestseller, and led to the debut of her own show on the Food Network, Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, in October of 2003. She was given a prime slot between two highly rated shows on the channel: Paula Deen’s Paula’s Home Cooking and Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals. “When I first started doing the show it took all day to get a single episode shot,” Lee recalled in Family Circle. “I taught myself to talk to the camera as if I were speaking to Kimmy or my best friend Colleen.”
Lee actually trademarked the term “semi-homemade,” and went on to produce several more cookbooks, including 2003’s Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Desserts and Semi-Homemade Grilling in 2005, all of which boosted her popularity with busy working parents. “Her approach merely underlines a way of cooking that is rapidly growing in American culture,” wrote Amanda Hesser in the New York Times. “While cake mixes and convenience foods have been around for decades, it is only recently that attitudes toward using them have shifted from embarrassment to allegiance.”
Lee’s Food Network show was a hit with viewers, and she became one of the channel’s most popular personalities. She was often dubbed the next Martha Stewart, especially when Stewart’s powerful multimedia empire seemed to be on the verge of collapsing when the original domestic diva was tar-nished by an insider-trading scandal and was sentenced to prison for lying to federal investigators. There were several crucial differences, however, as Dougherty, the Los Angeles Magazine writer, pointed out. “Stewart addresses the tasteful sophisticate who’s comfortable in the potting shed and at the stove, the woman with time on her hands. Lee gives hints to the young newlywed or the overextended mother who knows her way around Wal-Mart, harbors no ill will toward Velveeta, and wants to take the basics—soups, sandwiches, and apricot brandy—and make them her own.”
Lee explained her reliance on brand names in her recipes as an aid to her readers and viewers, not a product endorsement. “If a recipe for potato salad doesn’t turn out, maybe it’s because you used sweet and sour mustard that was just too sugary,” she explained to Boone in the Tacoma News Tribune, and asserted that by giving instructions to use specific brands, “I’m making cooking pretty much foolproof.” Using convenience foods, she noted in another interview, was a way to spend less time in the kitchen. “The question isn’t what’s for dinner,” she told Cutter in W. “The question is, ‘What did you do today? Tell me about your day.’ The point is to have more time to spend with your family, and what I offer is a way for people to do that without having to feed their kids McDonald’s.”
Lee’s 70/30 philosophy has been disdained by some food writers, who criticize her recipes and reliance on brand-name items from supermarket shelves as a strategy that makes her recipes actually more expensive that making a comparable item from scratch. In Lee’s cookbooks, noted Hesser in the New York Times, “she encourages a dislike for cooking, and gives people an excuse for feeding themselves and their families mediocre food filled with preservatives.” But Lee’s most outspoken critic was celebrity chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain, who served as a guest writer on food journalist Michael Ruhlman’s blog, Ruhlman.com, in early 2007. Bourdain gave a rundown on the merits of various Food Network stars, praising some but excoriating Lee and Rachael Ray, another quick-meal advocate. Bourdain faulted Lee for relying on processed, preservative-laden foods high in fat, and termed her show “simply irresponsible programming.”
In late 2007, Lee returned to the home-furnishings market after inking a deal with Waverly, the fabric and wallpaper manufacturer, and also published her memoir, Sandra Lee: Made from Scratch. She and Karatz divorced after five years of marriage, and she divides her time between Los Angeles and New York City, near to the Millbrook, New York, house— dubbed Sandyland by staffers—where her Food Network show is taped. She dedicated her first cookbook to her late grandmother, who had played such a formative role in life, and keeps a pair of Lorraine’s shoes. “She said, ‘Honey, until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you don’t know,’” Lee explained to Dougherty in the Los Angeles Magazine interview. “So I put them there to remind me.”
Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Cooking, Miramax Books (New York City), 2002.
Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Desserts, Miramax, 2003.
Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Grilling, Meredith Books (Des Moines, IA), 2006.
Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Cooking Made Light, Meredith Books, 2006.
Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Cool Kids Cooking,Meredith Books, 2006.
(With Laura Morton) Sandra Lee: Made from Scratch (memoir), Meredith Books, 2007.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), December 7, 2002, p. U14.
Family Circle, November 1, 2007.
Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), March 5, 2003, p. FOOD1.
Los Angeles Business Journal, January 9, 2006, p. 3.
Los Angeles Magazine, December 2003, p. 121.
New York Times, October 1, 2003.
Parade, December 2, 2002. Publishers Weekly, October 13, 2003, p. 73.
News Tribune (Tacoma, WA), October 23, 2002.
USA Today, May 5, 2006, p. 4D.
W, December 2002, p. 108.
“Meet Sandra Lee,” FoodNetwork.com, http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/sandra_lee/0,1974,FOOD_16936,00.html (January 19, 2008).
“Nobody Asked Me, But ,” Ruhlman.com, http://blog.ruhlman.com/ruhlmancom/2007/02/guest_blogging_.html (January 19, 2008).